A bowl of vibrant red pepper sauce

This harissa is subtly sweeter than most as it uses blanched garlic to dull its often brash overtones.

I love hot, spicy food. Having grown up on a well-cooked and tasty but bland diet of meat and potatoes – the family table staying true to my father’s Scottish roots – I didn’t discover spice until I left home but have more than made up for it since.

Along the way, from mild kormas and dhals to flaming hell-fire vindaloos, I have learnt to appreciate the nuances that spice and a bit of heat can add to food. A lot of people are scared of “hot” food – when hearing that it’s curry for supper the typical response is “I hope it’s not too hot”. When cooking for clients I always err on the side of caution, keeping the chilli quotient down (but offering extra chopped or dried chilli at the table for personal adjustment). An irascible (but lovable) member at the private club where I used to cook always complained that spicy food made her ears hurt, and she would make her displeasure loudly known ahead of the meal and then return to the kitchen – eyebrows on surprise-alert – to say how much she had enjoyed it.

Curry is such a broad church, and chillis such a various species, that it seems a shame to lump them all together in one category. For example you need to differentiate not just between countries but within countries – separating Keralan from Goan; or Malay from Nyonya – not to mention the infinite regional variations in Thailand, Burma or Nepal. And there’s the whole of Arabia and Africa to consider … On my personal spice route, I have found harissa, a staple of Tunisian and Moroccan cooking, a versatile godsend in the kitchen, and I would venture to put it in the same category as ketchup or miso. It is not just a condiment, because the combination of smokey heat, spice, garlic, vinegar and sugar boosts the complexity of soups, sauces, dressings or marinades. So when I saw the array of peppers and chillis on offer at my favourite local greengrocer, Newington Green Fruit and Vegetable shop – packed with specialist produce – it was easy.

A mix of red peppers of different shapes and sizes and a mix of chillis – you can (roughly) determine the heat by choosing or avoiding the Scotch bonnet rippers and go for the stubbier, more triangular shaped ones (and remove the seeds if you’re really worried) – and a few bulbs of garlic went into my basket and I was away.

At home I turned the oven on to roasting temperature (180C) and on to a roasting tray I roughly topped and chopped the peppers (360g) and chillies (190g), drizzled with a good slug of ordinary olive oil (eg Carbonell), a tablespoon of ground coriander, a tablespoon of cumin seeds, a heaped teaspoon of smoked paprika and a generous pinch of sea salt. In it went for an hour, and I gave it a good turning over every 15-minutes or so, allowing the peppers and chillies to char slightly, and the house to fill with gorgeous spicy, smokey aromas. Simultaneously, I peeled two bulbs of garlic (about 20 cloves) and blanched them three times in boiling water. This is a great way to soften and sweet the flavour of the garlic and remove the harsh, nasty side effects. Essentially just bring a saucepan of water to the boil, add the peeled cloves, simmer for 20 minutes, drain and repeat. This means the garlic is ready about the same time as the peppers.

It all went in to the blender with a slug (10ml) of red wine vinegar, another 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a generous pinch of brown sugar and another big pinch of sea salt. Blitz it all together and test the seasoning with the tip of a spoon. Through the heat you should get notes of sweetness, spice and acidity. If it tastes a bit flat, add a dash more vinegar and salt. Sadly, I appreciate the extreme end of the flavour spectrum rather more than my spouse, so I bottled a few jars of the vibrantly colourful paste for friends and saved enough to keep me going for quite a while.

I got my first chance to use it today, in an egg and cress sarnie with home made bread, mixing a teaspoon of harissa into the mayonnaise. Eggs and chilli are a winning flavour combination (don’t take my word for it, add a few dried chilli flakes next time you scramble eggs).

The sprouts added crunch, and I swear Spouse was leaning in a little too close to my plate as I devoured it.

If you prefer milder food, try my recipe for Sweet Potato and Cashew Nut curry in which fresh ginger provides some of the heat, and coconut milk adds a sweet, nutty counterpoint to the spice.

© Linda Galloway 2020